Keith Johnson/Dancers, from Long Beach, California, were in town this past weekend. The Sugar Space Foundation presented their latest performance, Panoramic Throat; the company also hosted a workshop, in partnership with both the Sugar Space Foundation and the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts. I was able to attend both.
Panoramic Throat, performed at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, opened with two dancers on stage. Alvaro Nunez and Andrew Palomares wore striped leotards reminiscent of 1930’s swimwear. Nostalgic, the music began for “Sea of Possibilities”. The duet was continuous, laced with moments of stillness and subtle jazz hands. Nunez and Palomares shared a focus of awareness towards the audience. They knew they were being watched. This first work introduced Johnson’s beautiful choreographic quality of vulnerable technique.
“Mercy, Mercy, Me” followed. A trio of women wearing shades of red gracefully haunted the space. The music reminded me of sirens, beautifully wailing their sorrows. Haihua Chiang, Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, and Katie Istvan looked as though they had been dancing together for years. Every move, every gesture, was a reflection of each other. There was a human focus and feminine energy within this piece that reminded me of home, or a comfort zone. They were speaking their story and it was one I knew too well.
The final piece prior to intermission was Johnson’s premiere, “Panoramic Throat”. Nunez and Chiang dressed in multi-print costumes, a kaleidoscope effect. The audience had witnessed male and female energy separately within the first two pieces. “Panoramic Throat” combined those forces. It was a purposely chaotic and complex relationship of coming together and pulling away. I can’t forget the motif of Chiang pulling her own hands apart. Each movement dealt with anxiety and overthinking as if the dancers were trying to find peace within their own memories.
“Bodies Matter” was the final piece of the evening. I would not be giving the weight of “Bodies Matter” justice if I did not give you the full scope of this Johnson experience. Originally created at the Djerassi Artist Residency in 2015, “Bodies Matter” was a voice to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic. Tara McArthur joined Johnson at the residency, where they were surrounded by rich green trees, fellow artists of multiple genres, and time; the windows were open for Johnson’s creation and inspiration.
Johnson came up dancing during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. He experienced the loss of friends and colleagues to this heartbreaking disease. Death can be an interesting, albeit heavy, topic for anyone to approach in their artistry. Johnson’s take was not necessarily one of grief or even suffering, but one of people: the way people enter and leave our lives, the impact and energy those relationships have. “Bodies Matter” was formed as a solo, then became an installation piece featuring eight different dancers throughout Johnson’s dance world. Each dancer brought a specific history, their own experience, and their own physical body into the work. The eight hour installation piece premiered on World AIDS Day on December 1st, 2016. Friday night in Salt Lake City, “Bodies Matter” was a thirty minute solo performed by McArthur.
The Saturday workshop began with Johnson and McArthur explaining the process of “Bodies Matter”. Johnson described his relationship with his father, who had served in the Vietnam War, seen death, experienced loss. Johnson never expressed emotionally the loss he was dealing with to his father and vice versa. For whatever reason, they never turned to each other for comfort. In a way, “Bodies Matter” bridged their two experiences, a tribute to both of their trying times.
McArthur respectfully wore all red. The sound score was intense (no other way to describe it). Musical noises, stark silence, and gunshots surrounded her dancing. I was drawn to McArthur’s focus throughout: it never met with the audience but always looked beyond, as if the audience was lucky to be watching her yet not required to. At one point she took tape and distinctly marked a pathway by ripping and placing it in strong lines on the exhausted marley. Each line explained the path and turns her life had taken. The tape looked like an outline when it was all said and done. It reminded me of a crime scene, an outline of what once was.
During the workshop Johnson tried to give the dancers a taste of what inspired “Bodies Matter”. We worked for two hours on presence and focus, learning who we were, and how we could connect even though we had just met. This exploration concluded in a one hour performance at Mestizo Coffee. From being inside the work I can say that I have never been more aware of the dancers who were sharing space with me. It was not about me, it was about them. Were they ok? What were they going through? Could I help? It was a piece of listening and reacting.
The message I took from this experience, both the performance and workshop, is not how beautiful the dancing was. (It was beautiful.) It is that people are important: their stories, their history, and their choices are all important. And it is important that we be kind to everyone. This is an especially poignant thought with our current political climate. Humanity tends to get caught up in what divides us. Our care for each other and our kindness will pull us back.
Vivienne Glance is a poet. I wanted to end with the final stanza in a poem she wrote after viewing “Bodies Matter”:
Even splintered ones
Even squandered ones
Temria Airmet is the Artistic Director of Myriad Dance Company. She received her BFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah and currently teaches with Ballet West, Tanner Dance, and Millennium Dance Complex.